Human beings have been squatting since we started roaming the planet thousands of years ago. For about 200,000 years, in order to pick things up off the ground, sit/relax comfortably, and even use the bathroom (before bathrooms were a thing), humans needed to express full range of motion in their squat.
Fundamentally, not a lot of physiologic changes have taken place in humans for thousands of years. Aside from increased life expectancy due to technological changes and better nutrition, homo sapiens today are extremely similar to those over 10,000 years ago in terms of their physiology. If this is the case, why is squatting seeming more like a lost art than a normal human movement? After all, not much has changed, right? Although our core physiology is similar, our behaviors are drastically different from our ancient ancestors. In modern society, we spend a large portion of our day sedentary.
The humans of old spent all day foraging, hunting, and building. Often the most exercise we modern humans get is a simple walk to and from the car/parking lot while the rest of the day is spent sitting at a desk. The body is always looking for homeostasis, therefore if we do not use our full ranges of motion, there is no reason for our body to maintain these ranges. For example, if we skip on one leg 20 miles to get to our work place, then that is a giant stimulus that the body will need to respond to. Therefore, our single leg strength and cardiovascular fitness will have to adapt and increase in order to meet the demands of the task. If there are no demands, then there is nothing for the body to adapt to. All aspects of human performance and movement must be earned, therefore in order to maintain our flexibility, strength, and function we must constantly challenge these domains. Squatting is no different.
Common questions that are asked when it comes to squatting are,
“What is my squat supposed to look like?
Isn’t it dangerous for my knees to bend that much?
Why does my squat look different than another person’s?
Why is the squat even important?
I never use it throughout my day!”
Luckily, there are answers to all of these and they will be addressed further along in this e-book!
However, to answer a few important questions before we get too far, yes, everyone’s squat will indeed look slightly different. This is due to anthropomorphic differences in each person. Some people have wider hips, different limb lengths, and slight variations in bony structure. Not only are there slight anatomical differences, but depending on subjective preference people will usually squat in the position that feels strongest and most stable for them. For example, someone with stronger quads will tend to squat in a more upright position, whereas a stronger posterior chain tends to have a less upright squat. Neither are wrong or right, it is just personal preference/the needs of the task. It is worth mentioning that this can certainly change with time, and this is an idea that we will explore later. Addressing the question of whether or not a squat is important, I’ll ask you a simple question, have you ever sat down in a chair? Got up from a chair? Used the toilet? Have you tried to “get low” in order to move something heavy like a couch, TV, or desk? If you have done any one of these things, which I can guarantee you have since you are a human being who is also alive (or at least I hope so since you are reading this e-book…..) then congratulations you just performed a squat variation! In fact, the squat is so important that strength in our squat directly correlates to functional performance as we age. Yes, you heard that correctly. Individuals with a strong squat have lower rates of disability and higher rates of functional performance as they go through life. The importance of this movement cannot be understated.
When examining what a squat should look like, we want to think of a few points of performance involving the feet/ankles, knees, hips, and core. As long as our four pillars are met, we will have a rock solid foundation for our movement. Before we dive too deep into each joint, let’s do a quick review of what a squat should look like so it’s fresh in your mind as we go into the anatomy on a joint by joint basis. In general, a strong squat should involve a stable foot flat on the floor, knees tracking in the same direction as the middle of the foot, the hip crease below parallel, and a strong and stable core/pelvis that is free from excessive flexion or extension.
Let’s dive deeper into each joint starting from the ground up with our feet/ankles. In our squat, we generate force through the ground in order to perform work. Seems obvious, right? Then why are the feet and ankles some of the most overlooked joints when it comes to athletics, let alone squatting? The effects of the ankle have implications upstream, influencing the knee, hip, pelvis, and core. In order to have a proper squat, our foundation and connection to the floor must be flexible, yet stable. In order to have an upright squat position, the ankle must have around 40 degrees of dorsiflexion. That is FAR more than most individuals have, especially those with more sedentary lifestyles or regular high heeled footwear use. In order to achieve that level of dorsiflexion, not only do we need soft tissue mobility in our calves, but also in the intrinsic muscles of the feet! In addition to soft tissue mobility, proper joint mobility is a must. This means the bones that slide and glide over each other in the ankle, like the talus, tibia, fibula, and in the foot like the navicular, cuneiforms, and cuboid must have adequate capsular mobility to move as designed. Only when soft tissue and joint mobility is adequate can we put the last piece of the puzzle together, proper coordination and expression of movement via the nervous system. Simply put, without all three of these components we will be forced to make up for deficits in one form or another, decreasing our output and efficiency and increasing risk for injury. When squatting, we want a stable position in which our weight is centered over the middle of the foot. There are variations in squatting techniques in which the weight is sometimes farther back on the heels (low bar squat) however for our purposes we will focus on a midfoot position as this carries over to the most amount of functional tasks. With our pressure on the middle of the foot, we want to focus on creating tension through the feet by gripping/screwing in our toes/foot into the floor. If this sounds confusing, do not stress! The best way to demonstrate this is by keeping your feet straight, while trying to “screw in” the heels. When you do this, you will notice your arch rise up slightly. This is exactly what we are looking for. However, when performing this “screw in” mechanism, be sure to maintain midfoot pressure throughout the movement. It is very easy to take this concept TOO far and shift the pressure to the outside of the foot, causing the big toe to come off the floor. A good rule of thumb (or toe) is to keep things simple and keep pressure centered on the foot. If you are maintaining midfoot pressure, with equal weight on the heel, big toe, and pinky toe, you are all set.
Let’s move up to the knees and examine what is required of this joint in order to have an adequate squat. The knee gets a large amount of focus in the squat, and for good reason! The quads, hamstrings, and even adductors that surround the joint act as some of the prime movers that assist with knee and hip extension when standing up out of the bottom, as well as controlling the descent downwards into the squat. Despite appearing like a simple hinge joint, the knee actually has a rotational component, where the tibia internally rotates when the knee flexes, and externally rotates during extension in order to ensure the highest level of joint contact and stability. This rotational component during full lockout is called the “screw home” mechanism, and plays an important role in stability. In order to achieve a full depth squat the knee must achieve full flexion and extension. Additionally, to minimize excessive shear forces the knee must track in line with the middle of the foot and avoid collapsing too far inward or outward. Despite what you may have heard, the knees CAN and WILL track OVER the toes! There is nothing inherently dangerous about your knees going over your toes in the squat. In fact, this is necessary in order to achieve an upright position. If we didn’t have forward knee travel (ankle dorsiflexion) we would be forced to place larger amounts of loading on the hips, posterior chain, and low back. If you still aren’t convinced that the knees can go over your toes, I’ll provide you with an analogy. If someone told you that you can only bend your elbow 90 degrees because going any further was “dangerous” would you believe them? Absolutely not. Your knees are no different! If your body has the available range of motion and you have the strength to adequately control it, then it is not inherently dangerous. In fact, using this ROM is a surefire way to prevent us from losing it and maintain our mobility! In summary, when squatting we want our knees to track over our toes in a straight line to ensure proper loading and prevent any excessive shear on the knee.
Let’s move on to our hips which include some of the most powerful musculature in the human body.
During our squat, we must have full hip ROM in order to achieve proper depth. Without adequate flexion, extension, and internal/external rotation we will never be able to achieve a below parallel squat, let alone full depth. In order to achieve this position, we need about 45 degrees of external rotation, 35 degrees of internal rotation, 10 degrees of extension, and about 120-130 degrees of flexion. Now of course these ranges will be slightly different for everyone, but these are baseline numbers we are trying to shoot for. In order to squat properly, we will also see varying stance widths in each individual. Some people have a wider stance, narrower stance, toes forward, or toes slightly out. Stance variation is usually based on a few factors, however the factors with the largest influence are mobility and limb length/structure. For example, an individual with short femurs will usually have a narrower squat, while longer limbs usually involve a wider stance. Those with high levels of internal and external rotation will often be able to squat with a toes forward stance, while individuals with stiffer hips regarding rotation tend to squat with their feet pointed outward slightly. Regardless of anthropomorphic and flexibility differences, we want to squat somewhere between hip and shoulder width with our feet relatively straight between 0-15 degrees as a general rule to maximize depth and strength.
Lastly, let’s examine our pelvis/core when it comes to squatting.
This area is often overlooked since most individuals have clearly visible faults downstream that are much easier to address. However, despite the subtlety in spotting pelvic deviations, it is the foundation to bracing our spine and creating a stable system in which to generate force through. In order to create stiffness throughout our entire body and express force through our extremities, the pelvis and core must remain rigid. Think of it within the context of an engine or motor. If there is a lack of stiffness within the core and pelvis, the transmission of force from the lower extremities into an external object or load, which is needed to move the object, is less efficient. Instead of our engine having tight seals to maintain high fuel efficiency and power, that energy is lost as it bleeds out of the system. If our core and pelvis are not adequately braced, we waste energy trying to stabilize the system and therefore have less power that can be used to perform work. Therefore, what we are looking for in a proper squat is a neutral (level) pelvis that is not excessively tilted forward or backwards, with our core creating 360 degrees of pressure around our spine to create a bracing mechanism. To find this proper pelvic position, squeeze your glutes like you’re doing a bridge. Do not excessively squeeze, just a comfortable contraction. This is a level pelvic position. If you feel a large shift when you squeeze, you were probably standing excessively arched! From here, remember that position and brace the core by squeezing the abdominals and low back muscles and envision creating pressure in all directions, almost like how you would brace if someone were to sneak up behind you and slap you in the stomach if you didn’t want it to hurt! From here, you can relax your glutes and maintain core tension. Congratulations! You are now in a neutral spine position. This is the position we want to maintain during loaded squatting.
Hopefully with this information you are well on your way to becoming a squatting pro! If developed properly, the squat will be an integral part of your daily life and increase your performance of functional tasks across a majority of domains. As always, please reach out to your physical therapist if you find your progress stalls, you have pain, or have questions. Thank you and happy squatting